Like Western philosophy, Indian philosophy
is marked by great diversity. In the ninth century, Shankara defended a strict form of monism known as Advaita Vedanta. According to Shankara, nothing exists except Brahman, the ultimate Reality, which is so transcendent and unified that it has no properties and cannot be grasped by any human concepts. Three centuries later this view came under powerful attack by one of India’s greatest philosophers, Ramanuja.
Born into a Brahmin family in South India, Ramanuja married early but later left his wife to live as an ascetic. Like Shankara, he spent much of his life traveling around India, debating with other philosophers and fostering religious reform and devotion. His two most important philosophical works are his commentary on the Brahma Sutras of Badarayana (fl. fifth century BCE) and a commentary on the Upanishads titled Vedartha Sangraha.
Ramanuja founded a school of Hindu philosophy known as “qualified dualism.” He argued that there is no basis in either reason or the Hindu scriptures for Shankara’s strict monism. The scriptures describe ultimate reality as both one and many. To make sense of these seemingly discordant passages, Ramanuja claimed that the physical universe is God’s body. Ultimate reality is one because everything that exists is either God or a mode of God, but it is also differentiated because physical objects and human bodies and souls really exist and are not mere appearances or illusions. Thus, when the scriptures famously proclaim tat tvam asi (“that thou art”), this does not mean that humans are literally identical with ultimate reality (Brahman). It means that we are part of Brahman in intimate union with Brahman itself, which is the cause, controller, and animating soul of the universe. Arguing that the idea of a qualityless being is simply incoherent, Ramanuja claims that God is infinitely perfect. In other words, Ramanuja is a theist rather than a monist. What the scriptures call Brahman is actually Vishnu, a personal Hindu deity. Liberation (moksha) can best be achieved by devotion to Vishnu, though Ramanuja concedes that other methods also have value.
An illustration of Ramanuja in prayer from Hutchinson’s Story of the Nations, 1934, a world history by English book–publisher Walter Hutchinson.